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Dr Fernando N Ezeta *

1.  Context and trends of potato production in Asia and the Pacific region

Asia and the Pacific region (AP) comprises a vast geographical area which holds one half of the world’s population. The dominant factor in the region is the enormous presence of China in East Asia and India in South Asia and the importance of potatoes in the two most populated countries in the world. Home to the rapidly growing economies known as the Asian tigers in Southeast Asia, AP countries range from the very wealthy to among the poorest in the world. The lifting of migration restrictions in some countries, along with liberalization of the economies in the region has resulted in an accelerated process of urbanization that has significantly changed the supply and demand relationship for food and other agricultural products. This process will most likely intensify in the coming years, creating new needs and opportunities for the agricultural sector in response to the demand for raw materials and food from an emerging industrial society. Migration of young people from rural areas to cities and demographic policies to reduce population growth are rapidly creating an aging rural population. An older population will influence trends on labour force, access to land and technological development. In contrast, some countries are lagging in the transformation to market economies and remain mostly rural and vulnerable to food shortages and possible famine. Some of the poorest countries in the region exhibit very low average per capita incomes and negative development indicators. The heavily populated South Asian and West Asian countries like India, Bangladesh and Pakistan have large numbers of people living in extreme poverty and exposed to food shortages and malnutrition. The islands of the Pacific, which have relatively small populations, are also among the most vulnerable countries in terms of food security because of fragile agro-ecosystems and limited opportunities for economic growth.

Most countries in AP are densely populated and still growing. The pressure on land is among the highest in the world, with the available arable land as low as 700 m2 per capita. More than half of the population of AP is heavily dependent on the agricultural sector. In Myanmar up to 70 percent of the population is involved in agriculture whereas in China more than 60 percent still lives in rural areas despite the accelerated urbanization of the last two decades.

Rice is the basic staple of the diet of most of the population of AP; potatoes appear in these diets as accompanying vegetables. There are significant exceptions to this, namely in the highland areas of China, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, India, Mongolia and Nepal where potatoes are a dietary staple. In the subtropical mountains of Southeast Asia the potato is an important vegetable in diet diversification and an anchor in intensive cool-weather horticulture systems. The potato in these countries fills a role in diet diversification and improved nutrition. The value of the potato as a nutritious food is well recognized in those countries with a potato production tradition and could be a vehicle for addressing specific cases of malnutrition in selected areas where potato consumption is meaningful.

Led by China, the AP region produces more than 80 percent of the potatoes in developing countries. Most of the recent growth in potato production in the region took place in China where potato production increased very rapidly in the 1990s, essentially doubling during the decade to reach nearly 70 million tons per year by the turn of the century. Potato production expanded the fastest in Democratic People’s Republic of Korea where the government targeted potatoes as a linchpin of their food security strategy.

India is the largest potato producer in Southwest Asia and the third most important producer in the world. Potato production rapidly increased in the last two decades by area expansion in the Indo-Gangetic Plains. Potato consumption has also increased as a result of its popularity as a vegetable in urban diets and because of the growing demand for Western-style fast food. India plays a leading role supplying potatoes for the growing processing industries of neighbouring countries.

2.  Market opportunities for the potato in Asia and the Pacific region

There are significant opportunities for improved potato production and utilization technologies in this part of the world to address poverty, food security, and environmental degradation. There are millions of households in the region that grow potatoes, each household producing on average about two tons of this commodity on 0.1 to 0.2 hectares of planted area per year. Demand for potatoes is increasing rapidly, and a large share of production is marketed as a vegetable cash crop, with a small but increasing share going for processing. The potato also tends to be an input-intensive crop, often grown in fragile mountain environments. Thus, improved potato productivity is likely to have favourable impacts on the incomes of poor farming families. A share of these benefits will likely be passed on to consumers through the price-lowering effects of increased production. Improved potato production practices that reduce pesticide requirements and soil erosion are likely to have positive health and environmental impacts.

The market for fresh consumption of potatoes is expanding in most of Asia in response to income growth and urbanization. In addition to economic and demographic forces, government policies in several countries in the region are promoting expansion of the potato crop. In China the potato is included in the five-year national development plan aiming at reducing the poverty of the western provinces, and in Democratic People’s Republic of Korea the leader of the country is actively promoting the potato crop to ensure food security in the country’s northern highlands.

The potato is a bulky product difficult and expensive to transport long distances. The international market for fresh potatoes in the region is mostly restricted to cross-border trading among neighbouring countries and this has intensified in recent years with the building of better roads. Cross-border trading is very dynamic and opportunistic, responding quickly to price differentials and seasonal windows. The seasonality of potato production in northern Viet Nam, which grows most of its potatoes in the Red River Delta in the winter, restricts the supply of the local product to a short period after harvest in the spring creating an opportunity for cross-border potato trading from Yunnan in the south of China. The very high price of potatoes in some fast- growing economies of Southeast Asia have created space for international trade. Up to 1998, Indonesia was the main supplier of fresh potatoes to Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand from the highlands of North Sumatera. Since then, other countries have become competitive in that market, especially China and to a lesser extent Australia. In Southwest Asia, regional free trade agreements recently signed will favour trade in seed and ware potatoes among neighbouring countries, with India playing a dominant role in potato markets.

The market for potato chips is growing strongly in urban Asia and the Pacific. Factories for potato chips are usually installed close to or in the big urban centres in order to reduce the cost of distributing the final product, which is characterized by its low value per unit of volume. Transnational corporations of the potato snack industry are aggressively expanding operations all over Asian countries with few exceptions. The raw material for potato chips must meet high standards of quality, uniformity and regular supply to keep the processing units operating all year round. An emerging domestic industry can be found in some countries of Asia and the product competes well in terms of price and quality with the international brands for lower income segments of the domestic markets.

Driven by the steep growth of the fast food industry over the last two decades, the frozen French fries (FFF) market has undergone a huge expansion in most developing countries around the world. Asia and the Pacific region is a net importer of FFF from North and South America as well as Europe. Efforts to develop this product in Asia have been curtailed by the economies of scale of production units, the high price of potatoes in most countries and the uneven quality of the raw material. However, the potential for expansion of the FFF industry is promising in the northern latitudes of Asia where growth conditions are quite similar to those found in Canada or the northern part of the United States. The Inner Mongolia plateau in China, under irrigation, is becoming an important player in the production of processing quality potatoes with an upward trend in the coming years. Meanwhile, China still remains a net importer of FFF from several sources in the international market.

Potatoes have been used as animal feed in some countries of Asia but the high price of potatoes in the fresh product markets usually found in this part of the world has limited further expansion of their use as animal feed. In Eastern Europe the use of potatoes as feed was drastically reduced after the disintegration of the Soviet Union, which opened the markets for more efficient alternative sources of livestock feed. Nevertheless, the use of non-marketable potatoes to feed hogs is a common practice in China.

The demand for high quality fine potato starch in Asia is largely unsatisfied. There is a huge potential for expansion of this product, but the markets confront issues of export subsidies in the European Union, economies of scale, supply of raw material including expansion of storage capacity of raw material and quality of final product. Nevertheless, several plants for large-scale starch production are now operating in the northern provinces of China. A traditional way of processing potatoes in rural China has been the production of coarse starch and this is still a current practice at household level and is commercialized in local markets.

3.  Technical constraints for the potato by agro-ecological zones in Asia and the Pacific region

In the principal potato-growing zones of the region, the main technical constraints limiting productivity differ widely. Latitude provides a good demarcation for these environments, from the long-day, dry flatlands in northern China to the short-day, humid mountain environments in South Asia and Southeast Asia. Potato production in Asia can be broadly grouped into four principal systems according to latitude, each with a distinct set of needs and opportunities: a) the single cropping system characteristic of the northern latitudes; b) the double cropping system prevalent in the central part of China where two crops are accommodated in one season; c) the mixed cropping commonly found in the southwest of China where combinations of latitude and altitude favour multiple-cropping patterns and where planting and harvests extend from spring to autumn; and d) the winter crop of the extreme southern part of China, the Indo-Gangetic Plains, Bangladesh, and northern Viet Nam where potatoes are planted in the winter between two crops of rice. Potatoes are also grown in the hillsides of the Himalayan mountain range of northern India, Nepal and Bhutan. Potatoes can also be found in the tropical highlands in West and Central Java and Sumatera in Indonesia, Dalat in Viet Nam and Papua New Guinea in the Pacific.

In the single cropping area of northern China, seasonal aphid pressure is high and potato viruses (PLRV and PVY), drought, and sometimes devastating late blight (Phytophtora infestans) epidemics from July to September are the major factors limiting yield. The double cropping system is characterized by a very short potato growing season where the potato is first cultivated as a monocrop and then as an intercrop with maize. Viruses and bacterial wilt (Ralstonia solanacearum) are the main diseases. Late blight is important if potatoes are grown in the fall. The mixed cropping system is found in hilly and mountain areas in the southwest of China where late blight, bacterial wilt and wart are the main diseases. This system also extends into northern Myanmar.

In East Asia and Southeast Asia the winter crop (October to March) is found in China, the Red River Delta in northern Viet Nam, parts of Myanmar and northern Thailand, and the northern tip of Luzon in the Philippines. In South Asia, winter potatoes are grown in India and Bangladesh. The potato is grown in rotation with rice or other cereal grains usually under irrigated conditions. The growing season is short, demanding early varieties with good storage ability if farmers save and use their own seed. Bacterial wilt, late blight and viruses are common diseases and potato tuber moth can be a limiting factor in storage as seeds have to be kept for long periods under warm temperatures. Expanding the potato area of winter crops in China and Indochina presents an opportunity to increase food supply and improve the nutrition of large populations in East Asia and Southeast Asia. Most of the area growth of potatoes in India and Bangladesh observed over the last two decades took place in this type of environment.

In Southeast Asia the predominant potato production environment is in the high elevation, humid mountain areas. These areas are often under continuous year-round cultivation, with one or two crops of potato grown annually in rotation with cabbages or other vegetables. Late blight, bacterial wilt, viruses and various insect pests such as leaf miner fly (Liriomyza huidobrensis) and potato tuber moth (Phthorimaea operculella Zeller) all pose significant constraints to productivity in this system. Recently, the potato cyst nematode (Globodera rostochiensis) has emerged as another important pest in parts of Indonesia. Chemical input use is high, cultivated fields may be steeply sloped, and natural resource degradation is a major concern. This system is characteristic of potato production found in Indonesia, northern Thailand, southern Viet Nam (Dalat highlands), and the Cordillera mountain areas of Luzon and Mindanao, Philippines.

In all of the systems described above, the potato is primarily cultivated on small farms. In China and Viet Nam, past land reforms created an egalitarian farm structure in which individual farm families were issued long-term leases to small plots of land. With the exception of the flat lands of northern China, production is very labour intensive. About 22 percent of the total output is processed, most of it as coarse starch at household level to make noodles. Only about 5 percent is transformed into fine starch, chips, frozen fries, mashed or dehydrated potato.

In northern Viet Nam about a third of the potato crop is sold, a third fed to livestock, and a third kept for home consumption and seed. In Indonesia, Philippines and Thailand, farm structure is less equally distributed but small farms still predominate. Production is very labour intensive, and even small farms may make extensive use of hired labour in potato cultivation, employing landless labourers. Potato production in these countries is commercially oriented with more than 80 percent of the harvested crop being sold.

The lack of a reliable and affordable source of good quality seed is a major problem in all of the potato production environments found in the region. Since several of the most significant potato diseases are seed borne, this becomes a double constraint for poor farmers. Although high prices keep it out of reach of poor farmers, Indonesia, Thailand and Viet Nam import certified seed. China and the Philippines severely restrict the importation of potato tubers because of phytosanitary concerns. Each country of the region with significant potato production has invested in formal seed systems in which disease-free seed is produced and certified locally. These formal seed systems are often established with significant external financial and technical support and their record of sustainability after the termination of the support is poor.

Modern potato varieties have been widely adopted in Southeast Asia and are now beginning to make significant inroads into China, although the rate of variety turnover is generally slow. The lack of good seed systems constrains farmers’ choices regarding variety adoption. Inadequate seed systems limit the availability of seed of improved varieties but the high expense of seed renewal leads farmers to adopt varieties that do not degenerate quickly. This usually implies varieties that possess some resistance to viruses and that have sufficient dormancy so seed can be stored under ambient conditions until the next planting period. This helps explain the long-standing popularity of certain varieties.

4.  Strategy for development

4.1  Promoting the sustainable use of biodiversity

Potatoes were introduced into this region by European explorers in the seventeenth century from a narrow base brought to Europe from the Andean region. There is still an untapped wealth of genetic resources that the World Potato Center (CIP) holds in the world gene bank in Lima, Peru available for improving the potato plant. CIP and its research partners in this region are committed to working together on the identification of useful genes and the characterization of the potato genome in order to facilitate the work of potato breeders and biotechnologists.

4.2  Increasing yield stability

Concentrations of most marginalized peoples in the region are found in highland areas where potatoes appear in cropping systems. The highland areas where these poor communities live are physically isolated by poor infrastructure and vulnerable to climate shocks and pest and disease outbreaks. For these communities, providing yield stability is a higher priority than absolute productivity increases. CIP seeks to achieve stability by introducing varieties resistant to major pests and diseases and environmental stresses such as drought or heat. In order to mitigate the negative impact of global warming on potato production, CIP aims at selecting varieties with stable yield under a wider range of environmental stresses. CIP also seeks to improve seed quality. Virus research, vectors and physiological aspects of potato seed quality are the main elements of yield stability research.

4.3  Linking farmers to markets

Processes of agro-industrialization are well established in China, India and other Asian countries. Linking poor farming families and communities to the markets in these countries could solve the problem of poverty. Enabling reliable participation and equitable treatment in these market chains are important objectives. Making technology work for the poor will require marketing studies, access to services and improving the capacity of farmers to become more competitive either individually or collectively. The involvement of all members of the value chain of the potato industry is required to share the benefits of technological development.

With agro-industrialization, potato processing quality has become an important factor. Good frying quality for French fries and snack foods is rewarded by higher prices from processing companies. China has made significant investments into starch production in large processing plants in the north, but producing coarse starch is also a popular way of processing potatoes among poor farmers. There is a need for technology to facilitate the competitive participation of poor farmers in the emerging processing market.

The perishability of potatoes calls for alternatives to fresh consumption. Research should look at simple and affordable ways to extend the storage life of fresh tubers or transform them into long-term storable forms.

4.4  Sustainable intensification of potato-based farming systems

The scarcity of farmland in the region poses a challenge to potato agriculture. The growing demand for potatoes in the coming years will have to be met by increasing productivity per unit area instead of expanding cultivated area. This will require intensification of agriculture on potato-based farming systems with potential negative collateral effects on the environment. Environmentally friendly agricultural practices will be needed to mitigate negative impacts such as soil degradation, depletion and contamination of water resources, excessive utilization of agrochemicals among others. For instance, in northern China large areas of grassland have been incorporated into potato production with excellent productivity but with potential environmental costs that should be assessed in order to minimize negative and irreversible impacts on the environment.

Potato production in South Asia and Southeast Asia is often the economic anchor in intensive small-farm, high-value horticulture systems. Potato production often consumes more fertilizer and pesticides than other crops in the system. The pesticide exposure affects the health of farmers and their families. Contamination of soil and water and chemical residues in the product are a constant threat to consumers. The intensive movement of soil to grow potatoes leads to soil erosion especially in the hillsides of Southeast Asia. It is urgent to minimize the environmental damage of intensifying potato agriculture as well as to reduce health hazards to farmers and consumers of potato products.

In Asia and the Pacific region the potato is a commercial crop both for fresh consumption and for processing. Better varieties with integrated crop management practices will increase yield and provide higher productivity for the farmers. To be sufficiently competitive, the production needs of farmers have to be addressed in order to generate sustainable technological inputs to their farming systems. The availability and marketing of healthy potato seed, processing varieties, ware potato for fresh consumption and potato post-harvest technology are important for farmers in all potato producing countries in the region.

5.  Partnerships for greater impact and the role of international cooperation

Building partnerships with national and international organizations will enhance our capacity to address the R&D task required for the sustainable development of the potato in AP. The scarcity of financial and human resources calls for better integration of regional resources in order to respond to a growing demand for potato technology. There is a long history of regional partnerships in agricultural research in the region. Partners, such as the Southeast Asian Regional Center for Graduate Study and Research in Agriculture (SEARCA), that are supported by organizations of regional governments, offer stable platforms and partnerships in capacity building. Thematically-based or subject-specific partnerships have also proved to be resilient approaches, both in responding to demands and in tapping into regional and local innovation systems.

CIP seeks partnerships with stable, government-sponsored regional partners, especially for improved capacity building in this region, and will also elaborate the model of thematic and subject-matter partnerships and platforms at regional level to facilitate innovation and knowledge exchange throughout the region. In particular, it will help build partnerships which benefit from the growing role of China and India as advanced research partners and capacity builders in the region.

CIP’s UPWARD network (Users’ Perspectives with Agricultural Research and Development) is an example of a thematic partnership built around the mainstreaming of participatory research approaches within public and non-governmental organizations. UPWARD builds participatory research capacity in root and tuber crop production and utilization networks in the region through formal and research-based learning and innovation. It also provides a regional platform for cooperation between the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) centres on participatory research and capacity building. Strategic partnerships between CIP and other CGIAR centres have already been established in the area of crop genetic resources, participatory research and crop—livestock systems. CIP will continue to seek ways to gain synergy working with other allied centres either through bilateral arrangements or through system-wide programmes.

A major characteristic of countries of the region is the dynamic and creative character of local innovation systems, especially in the development of new uses for fresh products and in the techniques for transforming them. Individual households in China and more recently small and medium-sized private enterprises have been major engines of growth. CIP’s experience with building alliances and platforms can be applied to supporting these local innovation system alliances, especially linkages along value chains and between the value chain and public sector research and development organizations. For example, provincial-level agricultural departments have a strong capability to support seed multiplication and distribution systems, which can be key components of local potato innovations such as in chip or starch processing.

A major strategy for scaling up innovations in intermediate countries is strengthening local agricultural knowledge sharing and learning alliances. In many countries of AP, agricultural knowledge and information systems are relatively weak and fragmented with little sharing among civil society, the private sector and government organizations. International research organizations can function in a dual role in these countries. They can participate in local innovation systems through providing national research and development organizations access to new technologies and methods, be they germplasm, integrated pest management strategies or socio-economic techniques. Or they can facilitate dialogue and partnership among organizations. In addition to biophysical and socio-economic research there is an urgent need for backstopping capacity development on policy analysis, institutional strengthening, competitive production and provision of services enabling technology to serve the poor and increase market penetration. All this must be done in close collaboration with partners from the national and international community with congruent mandates and synergic capacities and a common vision of improving the livelihoods of the rural poor.

* Regional Leader, East, Southeast Asia and the Pacific (ESEAP), International Potato Centre (CIP), c/o BALISTA, Jl. Tangkuban Perahu No. 517, Lembang, Bandung, Indonesia.

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